Today’s utopian fervor around blockchain recalls the pioneering days of the World Wide Web and the Dot Com boom. Back then, pundits believed the cybersphere would rapidly transform human society for the better, unleashing mass creativity as it broke apart the ossified structures of governments and corporations.
In 1996, the late John Perry Barlow published ‘A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,’ a Libertarian manifesto claiming the digital realm as the bold new frontier of human freedom – one that would flourish best without government interference. As all who knew him would attest, Barlow was a charismatic figure—a wizardly, seductive raconteur with a sharp wit and a mischievous gleam in his eye. A Wyoming rancher who ran Dick Cheney’s first congressional campaign in 1970, he later became a counterculture celebrity, touring with and writing lyrics for the Grateful Dead, mentoring Napster founder and Facebook president Sean Parker, partying at festivals and conferences around the world. Barlow co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and enthralled large crowds at Burning Man, where he was a central figure.
In his Declaration, Barlow admonished regulators to stay away from the digital frontier they could not understand: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”
With hindsight, Barlow’s vision seems imbalanced. While Barlow’s EFF led the good fight for a free Internet (which has just suffered a massive hit with the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality), he also promoted a libertarian vision of an Internet free from government oversight without emphasizing social justice or the dangers of corporate over-reach. In The Incomplete Vision of John Perry Barlow, an essay for Slate, April Glaser writes, “Barlow’s focus was on harms that the government would pose to the openness of the Internet, not on the harms that corporations would pose, free from government regulation.” Representing the views of many Internet pioneers, “Barlow’s distaste for regulation…helped lay the groundwork for the unhinged growth of the corporate walled gardens we have today,” she notes.
Flash forward a few decades and we find ourselves in an unanticipated situation. While the Net impacted society in many ways, it didn’t lead to the great emancipation envisioned by some. The Internet has given us new expressive capacities while empowering mega-corporations and monopolies that control our personal data for profit. The government built the Internet with taxpayer money. It could be argued that entities like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have reaped such enormous rewards by privatizing aspects of what should have been a freely shared global commons.
We rarely question the ambiguous and even negative effects of the Internet Goliaths on our society. The seductive convenience of e-commerce, for example, has emptied out many towns, leading to downtowns full of empty storefronts, taking away jobs and fueling the social resentment which has powered the growth of the Alt Right. Amazon displaced local merchants, annihilating brick-and-mortar businesses, starting with bookstores that were hubs for the exchange of ideas in many areas. With its efficiencies of scale and hyper-competitive practices, Amazon has amassed a $130 billion fortune for its founder and CEO, now the richest person on Earth.
The effects of the Internet on media, politics, and social movements appear increasingly ambiguous. Dissidents and rebels used social media as their main tool for organizing insurrections—such as the 2011 Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East. Many of these rebellions, which seemed so hopeful at first, ended tragically in renewed despotisms and warfare. Today, dictators, terrorists, and nationalists exploit network technology with increasing sophistication to foment confusion and subvert democratic processes. Governments use it to spy on their subjects and may soon be able to exert control, Black Mirror style, over mass populations, as China is already testing. Then there is the issue of fake news.
The first wave of the Internet shifted our paradigm of communication: As individuals, each one of us can speak to our friends, community, and even larger audiences, continuously and directly, on platforms like Facebook, WordPress, Twitter, Instagram and Medium. This expressive capacity never existed before. In the previous age of television, only those with the tools to make content could produce media. Now content as well as distribution are democratized. Anyone with a smartphone carries a production studio in their pocket. This amazing development also unleashed many negative effects, such as the narcissistic selfie culture, the mass addiction to vacuous social media, and the increasing difficulty in discerning between valid and distorted sources of information.
Blockchain promises another set of disruptions, dislocations, and transformations that could have profound—positive as well as negative—consequences. If the first wave of the Internet transformed the paradigm of media, revolutionizing our ability to communicate, what blockchain offers is a new scaffolding for crafting shared agreements of all sorts. The potential significance of this cannot be over-stated.
Money systems as well as governments are, finally, shared agreements. As the Italian political philosopher Antonio Negri put it, capital is itself a “social relation”: What makes a million dollars something you can use to buy houses, land, or Burning Man art cars is not an intrinsic property of the paper or digits. It is due to shared belief. Blockchain provides a decentralized, peer-to-peer infrastructure where trust between parties requires no intermediary such as a bank, and all exchanges can be verified. This technology can be used to rewrite the underlying laws of financial and governance systems in ways we can yet only imagine. The potential is exhilarating and, because it is so great, also a bit terrifying.
This central realization underlies Max Borders’ compelling treatise, The Social Singularity: A Decentralist Manifesto. Borders is one of the main organizers of Voice and Exit, an annual conference in Austin, Texas focused on cryptocurrencies. Borders also runs a nonprofit, Social Evolution, a think tank incubating blockchain-based software to answer social needs. “Already we can buy and sell using cryptocurrencies,” Borders notes. “We are programming the incentives of tomorrow’s companies. These are just the first brushfires of a new form of social coordination in which technology itself makes it possible to upgrade our social operating systems.”
The Social Singularity expresses the ideology of a progressive subset among blockchain developers and investors who tend, politically, toward a new synthesis of Libertarianism and anarchism. The crypto-community rocketed to prominence in the last 18 months, as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other crypto assets skyrocketed in value. Many in this group espouse the DIY countercultural ethos of the Burning Man festival. They globe-trot to festivals and crypto conferences, as well as private events in French castles and Greek islands that cross-pollinate blockchain, entrepreneurial capitalism, Libertarianism, anarchism, utopianism, sexual experimentation and psychedelic shamanism. Many of them just recently got rich.
Borders proposes that the old structures of government are ossified. Our current operating system “has become buggy, strained, and outdated.” Instead of salvaging the current system of governance, we must build a new operating system to decentralize the functions of government and distribute them across blockchain-based platforms. Governments will be supplanted and eventually replaced by voluntary infrastructure where communities define their shared values, taxation structures, and practices through smart contracts.
Instead of physical countries defined by landmass, we will opt in to borderless digital nations. Populations will unite around shared interests and values through network technologies. In the near-future, he proposes, people will have the ability to choose between competing virtual orchestrations that provide all of the services—social welfare, healthcare, security—we receive from governments today. “The days of building utopias through power and violence are going away, because governance will function more like a market,” Borders writes.
I find aspects of Borders’ manifesto inspiring. For instance, I appreciate his idea of a “social singularity” that will accelerate collective human intelligence as an antidote to the unleashed power of Artificial Intelligence. I like an idea he developed in another related essay, proposing that we build infrastructure for local or community-based forms of social services, outmoding large government. Yet I struggle with many questions and concerns. It doesn’t seem like “power and violence” are going away anytime soon. If we transition to a market-based system where people opt-in to the kind of government they believe in, what happens to collectively shared infrastructure such as public transportation, highways, public schools, and so on?
Like many in the blockchain space, Borders’ views are tinged with Libertarianism. As an ideology, Libertarian thought has two central problems: It avoids dealing with historical realities and it proposes free markets as the solution to all social problems. We preserve the historical legacy of Colonialist and imperialist oppression in our unjust economic and social relationships as well as our invisible psychological structures. This legacy doesn’t simply vanish when we write new code. It must be addressed.
As for markets, there has never been a free market without government oversight. There is no reason to feel confident that market solutions will lead to a good path for humanity, when the market has been wrong many times before. Should we cede more arenas of life to the market, or should we revive the ideal of the commons instead? I tend toward the latter.
It is nice to think that what Borders calls “subversive innovation” can lead to “radical abundance,” but we also have to reckon with the hard limits of our physical world. We are seeing climate change accelerate as we approach peak resources in many areas. The mining of virtual coins has turned out to be another costly energy drain in a world facing a choice between further consumption of fossil fuels and environmental meltdown.
It is feasible that blockchain could lead to the splintering or fragmenting of governance and finance, as Borders proposes, with negative consequences. Our society has already split into a tiered system where the super-wealthy live in an increasingly separate world from the poor and middle class. New social operating systems with different governing principles might reify this further. In South Africa, the town of Orania is already issuing a whites-only digital currency. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has turned his focus to crypto. We may see blockchain-based platforms that support increased tribalism, nationalism, racism, and inequality, rather than helping to heal these divisions.
“Let us be under no illusions: there will never again be a constitutional moment,” Borders writes. “The enlightenment project is moribund. So if there is no unifying third super-rule, we will be unified by whatever equilibrium gets forged in the evolutionary fires of the market in governance.” While this is a stirring declaration, we must confront the prospect that a “market in governance” may only accelerate current trends—toward friction between social groups, fragmentation, and unfettered capitalism and consumerism leading to environmental breakdown.
It may be a few years, at least, before engineers solve the many hurdles and blockchain-based technologies become invisible, seamless, and scalable. Given an opportunity to shape the direction of this movement, can we avoid the errors made in the last utopian Internet bubble, which was infected by a Libertarian bias? This means starting with a commitment to restoring and replenishing the physical as well as virtual commons, rather than placing our faith, once again, in temporary market-base solutions which serve the lucky few.